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Notre Dame Football 101: Ara Saves the Day

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Notre Dame Football 101: Ara Saves the Day

For the third installment of Irish Football 101 we take a look at one of the darkest eras in school history and the man responsible for bringing the Irish back to the top.

Q: So Frank Leahy leaves after an undefeated season in 1953 and many people speculate he was forced to resign. Do you think that was the case?

A: I love a good conspiracy theory, but Father Hesburgh says that was not the case and Father Hesburgh is a living saint. Is anyone really going to call him a liar?

Q: Fair point. Who took over for Leahy and how did he fill the enormous shoes left behind?

A: President Father Hesburgh and Athletic Director Father Joyce promoted 25-year-old Notre Dame freshman coach Terry Brennan to head football coach. He had played under Leahy in the 40s and had great success as a head coach at Mount Carmel High School after graduating from ND. It was considered a very bold move to hand such a young and inexperienced coach the reigns but initially it looked as if Hesburgh and Joyce's gamble paid off. Brennan picked up right where Leahy had left off and the Irish posted 9-1 and 8-2 records in his first two seasons.

However, in his third season the roof shockingly collapsed. Due to a rash of injury the Irish had to play a slew of underclassmen and went on to win only two games, the worst season in school history. The only bright spot was the fact that "The Golden Boy," Paul Hornung, became Notre Dame's fifth Heisman Trophy winner--albeit very controversially--over Syracuse's Jim Brown. He's the only player to ever win the Heisman for a losing team but many argue that the only reason Hornung won it over Brown was skin color and sadly it's most likely true.

In spite of that, Hornung's great season shouldn't be lost in the controversy. In that 1956 season, he led Notre Dame in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff and punt return yardage, and even punting. On defense he was a great defensive back who led the team in passes broken up and was second in tackles and interceptions. Hornung had a spectacular season, it just wasn't enough to avoid the worst season in Notre Dame history.

Q: Did Brennan bounce back or was he doomed after the 2-8 campaign in 1956?

A: He lasted another two seasons and while he had a couple great moments--like going to Norman and ending Oklahoma's 47 game winning streak in 1957--he just couldn't quite get Notre Dame where it needed to be.

Q: So who was next?

A: The next two coaches were complete disasters. First came Joe Kucharich, a Notre Dame grad who had played under Elmer Layden in the 1930s. He became the first coach in Notre Dame history to complete his tenure with an overall losing record. By all accounts Kucharich was listless, emotionless, and unable to adjust his philosophies—which he'd learned coaching in the professional ranks—to the college game.

When Kucharich resigned in the spring of 1963, Hugh Devore was named the interim head coach for the '63 season. Devore had played for Notre Dame and actually coached the team for a two year period in the 40s when Leahy was serving in WWII. Devore loved ND and the players loved Devore, but he was an abysmal, underqualified, and overwhelmed head coach. The team went 2-7 in the 1963 campaign and Devore was relieved of his duty.

That was probably the darkest era in Notre Dame football—even darker than the one we find ourselves smack in the middle of today. There was a common thought that the University's administration was looking to de-emphasize football and go the route of the Ivy League schools. Father Hesburgh insists that this was never the case. His response to these accusations was: "there is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football and no academic vice in winning a game that by all odds one should lose." For those who believe the Notre Dame administration was actively choking out the football program, I invite you once again to call the living saint a liar.

Q: Wow, five straight seasons without a winning record and a conspiracy theory that the administration was trying to kill the football program. That's pretty bleak. So how did Notre Dame emerge from the depths?

A: Well, first Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce altered a long-standing policy of hiring only Notre Dame graduates as head coach since there really weren't any viable candidates in that pool. Then a savior came knocking. Ara Parseghian, the head coach at Northwestern, was one of the hottest up-and-coming coaches in the country. He had beaten Notre Dame four straight times and taken the bottom feeder Big Ten program to unprecedented heights.

After the 1963 campaign he called Father Joyce and asked two questions: was Hugh Devore going to be fired and would the school ever consider hiring a head coach that had not graduated from Notre Dame. Father Joyce answered yes to both questions, Ara quit his job at Northwestern, and Joyce pounced on the opportunity to bring him to South Bend. Just like that Notre Dame was on its way back on the map.

Q: So Parseghian was the head coach at Northwestern. Had he coached anywhere else?

A: He had quite the pedigree. He'd learned under Sid Gillman (who was considered one of the most innovative and influential coaches of his time), Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown, and Hall of Fame college coach Woody Hayes. Not a bad list of mentors.

Q: Was it instant success once Ara arrived or was there a rebuilding process?

A: You would think after years of losing and "deemphasis" of football the cupboard would be pretty bare and it would take time for ND to reemerge, but Ara came out with guns blazing. Notre Dame shocked the college football world and opened the 1964 season with nine consecutive victories. Quarterback John Huarte, who had been buried on the depth chart before Ara arrived, went on to become Notre Dame's sixth Heisman Trophy winner as he teamed with wide receiver Jack Snow to form one of the most explosive duo's in Irish history. They entered their final game of the season against Southern Cal ranked No. 1 in the country.

There in the Los Angeles Colosseum the dream of a title died. The Irish raced to a 17-0 lead, but some highly, HIGHLY questionable officiating allowed the Trojans to stay alive. Late in the game Southern Cal punched in the go-ahead score and secure a 20-17 victory. It was one of the most devastating defeats in Notre Dame history and where the pure venom toward Southern Cal originated.

Q: Was Ara able to sustain that high level of success after bursting on to the scene?

A: After a slight step backward in 1965, Ara led the Irish back to the summit of the college football world in 1966. After ascending to No. 1 in the country, they battled No. 2 Michigan State to a 10-10 tie in a contest billed as "The Game of Century." This set the table for Notre Dame to finish the season 9-0-1 which earned them a national championship for the first time since 1949.

The icing on the cake was a 51-0 drubbing of Southern Cal in the season finale. It was Notre Dame's first return to Los Angeles since the heartbreaking loss that cost them the '64 title and the team made a point of exacting a humiliating revenge on the Trojans. It is still the most lopsided final in the rivalry's history. Allegedly Southern Cal coach John McKay pledged he would never lose to Notre Dame again after that drubbing.

Q: Did McKay's squad ever lose to ND after that game?

A: They did, but not until seven years later. Southern Cal was the perpetual thorn in Ara's side (his final record against them was 3-6-2) and McKay always seemed to find a way to thwart the Irish. In 1972 Southern Cal embarrassed the Irish 45-23 with showboating running back Anthony Davis leading the way with six touchdowns (including two kickoff returns). He used to slide into the endzone to put an exclamation point on all his touchdowns, an act that infuriated Irish fans and players alike.

In 1973 the Trojans traveled to South Bend to play the undefeated Irish and the by all accounts the venom on campus was at unprecedented levels. Dummies with Anthony Davis' jersey on were hung in effigy out the windows of dorm rooms, pictures of Davis were plastered all over the sidewalks so that students could step on his face no matter where they went on campus. The Trojans had played the spoiler too many times and Parseghian was determined to not let it happen again.

On the first play of the game Irish defensive back Luther Bradley hit legendary Southern Cal receiver Lynn Swann so hard that Swann's helmet flew off. It set the tone for the entire day, one that would see star Anthony Davis held to just 55 rushing yards. The game was tight at halftime with Notre Dame clinging to a six point lead, but on the first play of the second half running back Eric Penick found a gaping hole cleared by linemen Frank Pomarico and Gerry DiNardo and raced 85 yards for a touchdown. Star defensive back Mike Townsend describes the emotion and meaning of the play best in the book Talking Irish:

"That was the prettiest play I ever saw. Eric was running straight down our sideline, straight toward Touchdown Jesus, straight toward our student section. After all those years of trying to beat USC—all that time not getting what we wanted—it was like the gods look down on us. And they said, 'This will be."

The Irish went on to win that game 23-14. Afterwards Penick was asked whether he'd considered sliding in to the endzone to mock Anthony Davis's customary celebration. He looked back in disgust and replied, "On my knees? I'm no hot dog. THIS IS NOTRE DAME.”

Do I absolutely love that quote? Holy hell, yes.

Q: Did ND beating the Trojans spur them on to the national championship?

A: As a matter of fact it did. The Irish went on to complete the season 11-0, clinching the championship with a 24-23 thriller over legendary head coach Bear Bryant and his No. 1 ranked Alabama squad in the Sugar Bowl.

Q: So who were some of the big name players to suit up for Parseghian?

A: If you're talking about the names that do stick out from the Era of Ara you start with a few dynamic passing duos. You have to start with quarterback John Huarte, who won the Heisman in 1964, and his partner in crime wide receiver Jack Snow. In Huarte's Heisman campaign he found Snow 60 times and Snow in turn piled up 1,114 receiving yards (which more than doubled the previous Notre Dame record) and nine touchdowns.

Terry Hanratty quarterbacked the 1966 championship team and he leaned on a go-to receiver as well in Jim Seymour. Nicknamed "Fling and Cling," Hanratty and Seymour teamed up to shatter the single game receiving record (276 yards) in their first games as sophomores (the record still stands today). When quarterback Tom Clements led the Irish to the national championship in 1973 he relied heavily on future NFL hall of fame tight end Dave "The Ghost" Casper—though it was scarcely used backup tight end Robin Weber that he found for the game-clinching first down in the '73 Sugar Bowl against Alabama.

Halfback Nick Eddy was one of the most electrifying players in school history who may have won a Heisman had he not gotten injured his senior season and wide receiver Tom Gatewood set receiving records over the course of his time on campus. Joe Theismann had a great run as starting quarterback between the Hanratty and Clements Eras—good enough that he changed the pronunciation of his name in order to aid his Heisman campaign (it used to be pronounced THEEZ-MAN, he changed it to rhyme with Heisman).

On the other side of the ball Ara had NFL Hall of Famer Alan Page and future first-round pick Kevin Hardy on the defensive line along with college football Hall of Fame linebacker Jim Lynch anchoring the '66 national championship. Former walk-on defensive back Nick Rassas played a huge role in turning around the program in Ara's first year while Luther Bradley and Mike Townsend made huge impacts later in Parseghian's tenure. He also coached Ross Browner, one of the most dominating defensive lineman in college football history, in his final two seasons at the helm.

Parseghian had a slew of All-Americans and future Hall of Famers who played for him, but he really didn't have anyone on that top level of Notre Dame lore like The Four Horsemen, Lujack, Hornung, Montana, or Rocket. That's not at all to say that his teams were less talented—he just didn't have the players with the "flair" to stick out like some others.

Q: So what did Ara's final record look like when all was said and done?

A: Ara posted a phenomenally successful 11-year run at Notre Dame where he amassed a 95-17-4 record (.836 win pct), the third best winning percentage in school history. Amazingly, he never lost consecutive games over the course of his entire tenure. He won Notre Dame's first bowl games since Rockne and The Four Horsemen won the 1925 Rose Bowl, brought home two two national championships, and lifted Notre Dame from its darkest days back up to the pinnacle of the college football world.

Q: Wait, Notre Dame hadn't won a bowl since the 1924 Rose Bowl?!?

A: After Notre Dame won the Rose Bowl after the 1924 season it took the team a month to get back to campus. The administration decided that it would not be in the best interest of the student-athletes to miss extended class time and therefore chose to decline any bowl invitations moving forward. Over the next 40 years this decision didn't have an effect on where Notre Dame ended up in the rankings because the final polls were taken before the bowl games, which in reality relegated the postseason games to almost exhibition status.

That changed in 1968 when the AP decided to crown its champion after the bowls were played. This meant Notre Dame would have to adjust their policy in order to legitimately compete for national titles, which they did. Starting in 1969, the Notre Dame administration decided to allow its teams to compete in the postseason bowls. By that time the academic calendar had been altered anyway—exams were done by mid-December as opposed to running into January as they used—which meant the football players didn't have to worry about missing extended class time since they'd be on break.

Q: How and why did Ara leave? Was there any controversy or conspiracy theory?

A: Ara simply burned out. He's an incredibly intense guy and the pressures of the job finally became too much after 11 seasons. He announced his resignation prior to coaching his final game, the 1974 Orange Bowl. The game was a rematch of the '73 Sugar Bowl, pitting Ara and his Irish against Bear Bryant and his Alabama squad. Notre Dame had been thrashed 55-24 by Southern Cal in their last game of the regular season and went into the Orange Bowl as a huge underdog to the undefeated Crimson Tide. The Irish gutted out a 13-11 victory, which denied the Bear a national championship and allowed Parseghian to go out a winner.

There was a lot of talk of Parseghian returning to coaching after taking a year or two off, but he said he would only consider professional jobs since "Notre Dame was the pinnacle of college football." When all was said and done he ultimately decided to remain retired.

The scene of him riding off into the sunset a winner was a stark contrast of the situation he'd walked into in 1964. It wrapped up one of the best eras in Notre Dame history—a truly improbable one when you think about the turmoil the program faced in the early-'60s. Ara truly was a savior and remains to this day one of the most beloved and legendary figures in Notre Dame's history.

 

 

 

This week's CliffNotes:

* Father Hesburgh is a living saint. Should you choose to call him a liar you risk God striking you down with a lightning bolt.
* Terry Brennan was only 24 years old when he was hired to replace Leahy with his main head coaching experience coming in high school. This mistake is something you will see Notre Dame repeat. Brennan did not succeed and was replaced in 1957.
* Joe Kucharich was the worst coach in Notre Dame history--even surpassing Ty "The Molder of Men" Willingham--and the only one to finish with a career record under .500.
* Hugh Devore was twice named Notre Dame's interim coach. The first time was a two-year stretch when Leahy went to serve in WWII, the second time was during the 1963 season when Kucharich resigned the spring before the season started. He was a great guy who loved Notre Dame but a terrible coach.
* People accused Notre Dame of de-emphasizing football in the early 60's. School President Father Hesburgh says this was not the case. Once again, should you feel the need to call him a liar this could be your fate.
* Ara Parseghian took the helm in 1964 and led the biggest turnaround in school history. The Irish improved from 2-7 to 9-1 and were a few terrible officiating calls away from winning the national championship.
* Southern Cal was responsible for the majority of heartbreak suffered during the Era of Ara. Parseghian only beat them three times over the course of his career.
* After beating the Trojans 51-0 in 1966 Notre Dame didn't beat them again until 1973. The '73 game was one of the most intense atmospheres in Notre Dame Stadium history and the Irish prevailed 23-14.
* Ara went on to win two national championships in 1966 and 1973.
* In 1969 the Notre Dame administration altered their policy on attending bowl games, allowing for the Irish to participate for the first time since Rockne and The Four Horsemen won the 1924 Rose Bowl.
* Ara burned out physically after 11 seasons at Notre Dame, compiling a winning percentage of .836. He considered coaching professionally after he left South Bend but ultimately decided against it.

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